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Holiday Health Check


December 19, 2007  |  

UCSD Physicians Say Sample the Season Sensibly

The sweet scent brings back a flurry of childhood memories the minute mom opens the door.  She bakes gingerbread cookies just once a year and it’s the smell that says “Home for the holidays.”  Physicians with University of California, San Diego Medical Center and School of Medicine say “Savor the seasonal offerings… just do it sensibly.”

“One thing to remember is the need for balance.  Energy in and energy out,” says Kevin Patrick, M.D., professor of family and preventive medicine, UCSD School of Medicine.  “We know we'll likely consume more because it's almost unavoidable with gatherings and gifts of food.  So, we should make a conscious effort to balance this with an extra session at the gym, longer walks, or something else that involves movement.”  Patrick also recommends taking time out to relax, alone or with someone else to provide support and encouragement during this tempting, sometimes trying, season.

Giving healthy gifts can be part of the plan.  “The perfect gift for just about anyone for the new year is a pedometer,” offered Patrick.  “Easy to use, self-monitoring, and walking is one of the best forms of exercise there is.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reviewed the importance of pedometers (JAMA November 2007), highlighting results of a paper suggesting that using a pedometer is associated with significant increases physical activity and significant decreases in body mass index and blood pressure.

And who says you have to wait until after the New Year to begin living better?  Link arms with one of those long-lost relatives and take a walk around the neighborhood.  Catch up on old memories and burn those gingerbread calories!

“But if you absolutely insist on over-eating, that good ol’ stand-by, Pepto Bismol, is a good over-the-counter reliever to have on hand,” said Gordon McGuire, Pharm.D., UCSD Medical Center. 

Seasonal Plants and Decorations

The season is also filled with gorgeous decorations, plants and products usually not seen or available during the first 10 months of the year.  “Unfortunately, this accounts for many problems during the holiday season,” said Lee Cantrell, Pharm.D., director of the California Poison Control System, San Diego Division, at UCSD Medical Center.  “These unusual additions may pose a problem for curious pets and young children.  For example, most people don’t know that all parts of mistletoe are toxic, and the berries may cause poisoning in children.”
The leaves, and especially the berries, of English Holly are toxic.  Ingestion of 20 or 30 berries can cause very serious poisoning, Cantrell explained.

Some seasonal nontoxic plants include Pyracantha, Eugenia and California Holly.  Poinsettias are essentially nontoxic, but can cause stomach upset if ingested, and the milky sap can cause skin irritation.  Also, Christmas cactus and pine cones are nontoxic.

Christmas trees such as pines, spruces and junipers may cause stomach upset if large amounts are ingested.  Ingestion of small amounts may cause a localized irritation of the mouth.

Some holiday decorations may be dangerous.  Carefully hang glass bulbs and light bulbs high on the tree to prevent accidents.  Angel hair, or spun glass, is very irritating to the skin and eyes.  Ornaments imported from other countries may be painted with a lead paint and could be toxic if ingested.  Tinsel manufactured prior to 1972 also contains lead; however, the major problem with ingestion of large amounts of tinsel is obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract.

“When visiting friends and relatives, especially those without small children, make sure their home is poison-safe,” said Cantrell.


Alcohol poisoning is common in children throughout the year, but increases during the holidays.  “This often occurs when children drink the leftover cocktails after parties, or when adults allow them to drink from their glasses,” said William Norcross, M.D., UCSD Family and Preventive Medicine physician.  Adults should make sure alcoholic drinks are cleaned up and out of reach during and after a party.

Also, colognes, perfumes and after-shave contain heavy concentrations of alcohol.  Small children might ingest these products by mistake if they are attractively packaged.  Children are very sensitive to alcohol, especially to its ability to lower blood sugar.

Toys and Tots

Toy related injuries peak during the holidays.  Parents should carefully review the toys on their child’s wish-list and consider the responsibility level of the child.  Small toys which break easily may be swallowed by small children and pets and cause serious injuries.  Potentially dangerous items such as darts, slingshots and BB guns can cause injury and loss of sight, especially during the excitement of holidays.

Additionally, small batteries—used in watches, cameras and calculators—can be quite dangerous if swallowed.  They may cause burns or may leak chemicals that cause poisoning.

If an ingestion of a questionable product occurs or you have questions about the potential toxicity of anything in your home, call the California Poison Control System, San Diego Division, at UCSD Medical Center, toll free at 1-800-222-1222.  The Poison Control System offers a 24-hour-a-day information service on the toxicology, clinical signs and symptoms, assessment and treatment of exposures to toxic substances.

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Media Contact: Kimberly Edwards, 619-543-6163,

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